Empire of the Sun
Words by Juliet Austin
Eton educated, with a degree from Oxford and a stint in the Irish Guards, the sanguine Colin Tennant, “the wag that they could not gag,” inherited the title of Lord Glenconner in 1983. Cutting a distinctive figure, the shalwar kameezclad, cane-toting peer was every bit the eccentric Englishman that he set out to be. Controversial to the last, he died in his beloved Caribbean in August 2010 aged eighty-three trying to reclaim the glory days of his youth with his newest venture, the eponymously named Glenconner Beach Village and Resort in St Lucia slated to open its doors in 2012.
Love him or hate him, he was undeniably a legend of his own design, perhaps best known by the monikers plastered across tabloid newspapers in his heyday: The Jet Set Monarch of Mustique, Lord of the Revels and star of the close-to-the-bone 2000 Joseph Bullman documentary, ‘The Man Who Bought Mustique’. An aristocratic playboy given to gestures of extravagance, royal confidante and visionary developer, he played the dual role of both king and jester at his own Caribbean court, ensuring that his enigmatic Hugh Hefner-cum- Prospero persona became a brand unto itself, synonymous with the hedonism and glamour of the world’s up and coming elite.
Buying a neglected backwater in the Grenadines, the parched island of Mustique in 1958 for just £45,000, he is credited with having single-handedly created the first ever Caribbean resort, establishing an infrastructure that included fisheries, schools and an airport, and transforming it into a millionaire’s paradise where at his fiftieth birthday, royal party girl Princess Margaret herself crowned him ‘King’ of the land. Creating a charming enclave, worlds away from his ancestral neo-gothic castle, the Glen in Peeblesshire, Scotland, he certainly lived by the creed of the Tennant family motto: Deus Dabit Vela – God will fill the sails. As he told the Sunday Times newspaper, “Mustique was an experiment in a completely new, fantasy place.” Asked to reveal the secret of his success, his reply was typically cavalier: “I see the end and then I work out how to get there.”
Free to finance the entire project and given great latitude to establish what would become the ultimate high society playground for pop stars, aristocrats, socialites and royalty alike – Tennant’s Caribbean Shangri-La attracted stars of the calibre of Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry and David Bowie. Establishing his Mustique Company, he initially built twelve homes for his wealthy friends, most famously, giving ten acres to Princess Margaret as a wedding present upon which he built her Georgian-style colonial villa, Les Jolies Eaux. It was here that she is rumoured to have first entertained her lover, Roddy Llewellyn, after being introduced by Tennant himself. With a design inspired by his close friend and collaborator, fêted theatre designer, Oliver Messel, she was reported to have said that it was the only place that she could ever relax.
Legendary shenanigans ensued: lavish fancy dress parties and outrageous soirées featuring scantily dressed revelers, fire eaters and copious carousing presided over by the flamboyant ‘lord of all he surveyed’ – Tennant, often photographed sporting a bejeweled turban befitting a monarch. Though usually urbane, witty and good-humoured, the mercurial Lord Glenconner did not suffer fools gladly, often dealing with naysayers with his irascible icy candour. His critics accuse him of having tried and failed to create a colony as the sun set on the British Empire. To those in ‘Colin’s club’, however, he was the consummate ‘father of tourism’; a man who boldly packaged and sold the Caribbean dream, shaping the world of the rich and famous with his self-styled “pocket of decadence.” With privacy guarded at a premium, the high society hideaway’s code of secrecy has stood intact for decades. However, according to Tennant, by the 1970s, the “spirit of adventure” had disappeared and, as profits turned to losses and joviality was replaced by acrimony, the maverick peer sold up assets, including paintings by Lucian Freud and John Constable, and headed to St Lucia with his pet elephant, Bupa, to try to recreate his vision of ‘Pleasure Island’.
Ventures came and went including a failed attempt at a mango import and export business and a four-star resort. But, the story goes, that it was on a canoe trip round St Lucia’s iconic Pitons, the island’s dormant volcanic peaks, that Tennant discovered the 480-acre, Jalousie estate which he bought, later selling half to the Jalousie Plantation Hotel (now the five-star Tides Sugar Beach) and setting up a beachside restaurant, Café Bang, (as in “bang between the Pitons”), based on Messel’s stage designs for the 1950s Broadway musical, House of Flowers. Installing two conjoined earlytwentieth- century gingerbread cottages salvaged from elsewhere on the island, he created what he would go on to describe as his “rat hole orné” – a ramshackle, yet charming final resting place furnished with an eclectic mixture of family heirlooms including a gilt mid-Victorian fruit stand – a present from Princess Margaret herself, a giant silver bed and priceless Indian antiques.
Fueling accusations of “near lunacy” and “feudal arrogance,” Lord Glenconner cut a charmingly anachronistic figure in St Lucian society. He maintained his “boundless optimism and panoramic vision” to the end, stating characteristically, “We weren’t brought up to throw in the towel. We were brought up to bite bullets and fold towels neatly.” He died before seeing his latest project realised or his newest folly completed – a “stately pleasure dome” inspired by Coleridge’s opium-induced poem, Kubla Khan, and a living museum to his colourful life. He wanted to leave a legacy to St Lucia, an island for whom he was Goodwill Ambassador, and Mustique, who in 2009 honoured him with an eight-foot statue in his image, in his own words, “looking like a Chelsea pensioner.” Soon to be published, his long awaited posthumous memoir, I Told You So , promises to ruffle a few feathers and tell the tale of one, in the words of Coleridge, who has “drunk the milk of Paradise.” Thwarted genius, visionary developer or notorious aristocratic tearaway, one thing is for sure: life according to Colin Tennant was never dull.
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